Last week, my colleague Steve Ward (established composer, engineer and Program Director of the Music Production & Recording Arts program at Mercy College) posted on Facebook an experience he had recently while attending a concert at a theater in the New England area.
At the start of the thread, Steve mentioned that the mix for the headline act—a solo singer/songwriter with one vocal mic, playing either an acoustic or electric guitar—emphasized the guitar over the vocal, to the point where Steve couldn’t hear the lyrics. To paraphrase Steve, “One vocal mic, and one guitar mic or mic on the guitar amp. How can you screw this up?”
Good question. This is unacceptable. I’m familiar with this venue. It has an excellent P.A. system and very good acoustics. Unacceptable times two.
As the thread progressed, there were mentions of how important soundcheck can be, and why a soundcheck is not always effective (e.g., many rooms sound completely different when full than they do when empty), as well as a few funny comments.
Engineer Roy Hendrickson (Google his name. He’s amazing and has great ears) commented about something he’s observed at far too many live shows: The kick drum is way too loud above everything else in the mix. This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, and I blogged about it back in May of 2021. I share Roy’s sentiment: I too, have witnessed an excessive number of shows where it’s KICK DRUM, oh, and by the way there’s a band back there somewhere.
And last week, I had to be that guy, mixing in a small, beautiful theater in the Northeast, a theater which has a wonderful installed P.A. system and an amazing crew. But the room itself has some….ummmm…acoustic issues. Specifically: if you create a mix that sounds balanced at the FOH position, and then walk the room to listen to your mix, you’ll find that the kick drum and deep bass is inaudible throughout the front half of the room. The reason is that the mix position is under the balcony, in an area that essentially serves as a bass trap. As Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott once sighed to Captain Kirk, “I canna change the laws of physics.”
The only way to make the mix sound balanced in the front of the room was to mix it so that the kick was pretty darn loud at FOH. Unfortunately, most of the rows of seats under the balcony (near the mix position) suffer the same problem: kick drum too loud. But that’s what I had to do in order to make sure that the audience in the front half of the room was able to hear the kick drum and bass. Ouch.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that this sort of visceral low end can be addicting. I caught myself getting carried away a few songs into the band’s set, pushing the bottom end too far. Whenever possible, I try to walk away from the mix position for at least a few seconds once or twice during a show as a reality check: I need to hear what it sounds like in other parts of the room, in case it’s different from my location. When I did, I found that the kick drum and bass were sufficiently represented in the front of the room. Kobayashi Maru.
I decided that the front rows would have to live with a mix that was slightly anemic in the bottom end so that I could avoid pummeling the seats under the balcony with the Ten Foot Kick, sending those patrons home with a headache. It was a compromise I don’t like to make, but like Scotty, I canna change the laws of physics. I mixed the Ten Foot Kick—but for one night only.